The visionaries behind The One River, Many Stories project asked, what will happen when all the storytellers in our region turn their attention to one topic, the St. Louis River?
As an outdoors blogger, I was excited by the idea. However, it quickly hit me that I didn’t know much about the largest U.S. tributary to Lake Superior (the sole fact I could recall).
Yet after some thought, I realized that our family has enjoyed many recreational activities along, in, on, and around the St. Louis River. We’ve canoed around the Spirit Lake section, fished at Chambers Grove, played along its shores at Jay Cooke State Park, walked over its infamous swinging bridge, motorboated under the Bong Bridge, swam in a secluded cove, traveled by train along the Mud Lake section, paddledboarded in the bay, and even took a special Vista Fleet boat tour up the estuary.
Despite these positive experiences, I wasn’t so sure our family, including our two children (Daley, 8; Finley, 4), had a true appreciation for its presence and importance. The project pushed me to come up with a family outing that might help us gain a deeper understanding of the river as it relates to our natural environment.
The first question that came to mind was, where does the St. Louis River start?
We set out on the last day of April after waiting for somewhat drier ground to explore the headwaters of the nearly 200-mile St. Louis River: Seven Beaver Lake. The lake is about an hour and half north of Duluth.
Due to Tim’s keen pre-trip research, we learned that the lake, which is deep in the Superior National Forest, has no direct access.
So we drove on a remote dirt forest road that was bumpy — really bumpy — until we could go no farther at a railroad trestle.
Without a doubt, we were in the wilderness.
The moment Daley stepped out of our vehicle he noticed HUGE moose tracks in the mud.
While we never saw a moose, our wildlife sightings included three beavers (RIP; details below), two ruffed grouse, spring peepers, a great blue heron, deer, a hawk, Canadian geese, three mallard ducks, a bald eagle, turkey vultures, and several unidentified birds.
We hiked and bushwhacked until we reached the arm of Seven Beaver Lake where it narrows to become the river. It was powerful to think that the water in front of us will travel nearly 200 miles to Lake Superior, and another 2,340 miles through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean.
The setting was peaceful.
Until somebody noticed, as Finley later described, several “foots and front paws” lying bloody in the grass. At first, Daley thought they were from a monkey.
It was disconcerting.
And very educational as they were from a beaver. They were left by a trapper whom we had met earlier on the trail. He had explained that he was hired by the DNR to trap in order to protect the wild rice beds in the lake.
We took some time to explore the hand-like front paws and webbed back feet. The large nails particularly intrigued Daley.
Our science and ethics lesson continued when we later came upon two beaver carcasses, freshly skinned. An eagle sat patiently on a nearby branch while several turkey vultures circled as we examined the still identifiable innards.
Why the River Is the Color It Is
Once we were back in our vehicle, we followed the river as best we could being restricted by roads. At river mile 144.9, we stopped at a carry-in canoe access point. Here we found a grassy area along the banks and enjoyed a relaxing picnic.
We were struck by the dark amber color of the water, which we had read is due to tannic acid from bog plants and trees, or as Daley explains, “all the juices and color from the dead leaves in the bog.”
Evidence of the Ice Age and Ice Cream
We decided to visit the town of Floodwood at mile 72.8 of the river next. We were drawn to this section because it is where the river changes from running southwest to southeast.
I was intrigued by this fact since the topography of the area was relatively flat. Why would this major river turn here rather than continue straight to join the Mississippi, which seems more logical when looking at today’s topographical map?
Later, we learned that the retreat of various ice sheet lobes helped form Glacial Lake Upham, which ultimately drained through various outlets, one of which became the St. Louis River. It drained into Glacial Lake Duluth, the much larger precursor to Lake Superior (at least that is my best guess from reading a Minnesota geology book without a background in geology).
In short, the reason for the unexpected directional change is due to the topography of yesteryear, not what we see today.
Geology lesson aside, the kids’ favorite part of this stop was the ice cream treats from the local Burger House.
A River Runs Through It
Our stop at Cloquet’s Spafford Park boat landing at river mile 37 was significant because it is the most developed area of the river. It was interesting to compare the surroundings of the river here — in the center of a town — to where we started in the backwoods.
We noticed the river was much wider and the current much stronger. Daley easily explained that the Whiteface and Cloquet, both major rivers with reservoirs, flowed into the St. Louis upstream.
The Impact of Paying Attention
We made one final stop at the Thomson Hill Visitor Center on the western end of Duluth. Here we took in the view of the St. Louis River Estuary — where the river environment transitions to the lake environment.
We’ve seen this view numerous times, but on this day, thanks to the One River, Many Stories Project, we saw it from a new perspective.
Traveling to the source of the St. Louis River and exploring the river’s length gave our family a better understanding of this key part of our region’s natural environment.
What role does the St. Louis River play in your life? Share your thoughts in the comment box below. Thanks!